Over our years of covering men's bags, we've noticed two things. First, when most designers have a super-popular women's bag, they modify it into a more traditionally masculine version for their menswear audience. Second, those bags generally seem like a better deal than the women's alternative, even though they're usually bigger and feature nearly identical finishing and hardware. I put our perceptions to the test last week, and what I found largely confirmed our suspicions.
Higher prices for women aren't uncommon, and they go beyond fashion. The so-called Pink Tax has come under fire in France recently after a women's group assembled a 40,000-signature petition to challenge a popular supermarket's practice of marking up goods marketed toward women, and the New York Times Editorial Board recently wrote on the topic, citing a 2010 Consumer Reports study that found the same problems for women's products in the US. With all that in mind, I set out to do an informal study of my own.
The biggest obstacle to getting results was figuring out how to compare the bags in a fair way. For accuracy's sake, I did ten head-to-head comparisons of bags from the same designers' men's and women's lines that were as similar as possible in leather, shape and finish. Because men's bags are usually larger, I broke it down even further by calculating the price per cubic inch of each bag. That way, we'd know how much designers were asking per unit of bag real estate, no matter how much or how little the particular consumer chose to buy. For the best results, I used head-to-head comparisons of bags from the same retailers whenever possible, to help ensure that each bag was measured the same way.
The men's bags were indeed larger, with an average volume of 1,479.5 cubic inches, compared to the average women's bags at 1,014.4 cubic inches. For that space, designers generally asked less of men, with an average price of $2.17 per cubic inch; female customers were asked to pay $2.58 per cubic inch. That may seem like a relatively small difference, but for two bags of the same size, it results in an average price disparity of over $190, largely because one bag is intended for a female consumer base and the other is intended for men. I also tested two bags that were exactly the same size for both men and women; the price disparity persisted, indicating that the other differences weren't simply a result of price not scaling in exact correlation with size, no matter the targeted gender.
Three of the ten bag pairs that we tested were Givenchy; the brand has, by far, the most overlap between its men's and women's styles overall. All three of the bags were notably more expensive when marketed toward women, despite the fact that two of the three were virtually identical across the gender lines. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen actually charged their male customers more per cubic inch in the bags we tested. It's worth noting that those two bags pairs were the most disparate from each other in structure and finish of any that we tested; the more similar the two bags are, the more likely it is that the female consumer would be expected to pay more.
The biggest single bag difference that we found was between the Givenchy Lucrezia and a men's weekender with very similar structure, trim and leather quality. The men's version of the bag cost $0.98 per cubic inch, while the women's Lucrezia cost $2.67 per cubic inch. The Saint Laurent Classic Duffel was also a conspicuous offender; the women's bag costs nearly $3 per cubic inch, while a nearly identical, larger men's duffel was only a little over $1.50.
The party line from brands on why bags have spiked in price so much over the past ten years is that raw materials keep getting more expensive; while leather may indeed be going up in price, these calculations seem to indicate that it's not the whole story, especially because the men's bags generally used quite a bit more of that oh-so-precious material. Manufacturing costs, too, would have been practically identical because most of the bags have extremely similar finishing details and hardware.
A more likely explanation is that brands simply know they can get away with more, price-wise, when it comes to female customers. We're more desensitized to fashion prices than men are, and we're socialized to care more about the bag we carry as a statement of socioeconomic success. Most affluent men are still somewhat reluctant when it comes to fashion, and brands may need to lure them in before they can ratchet up prices in the same way that they have for women.
Below, check out all the bags we used in our mini-study, plus both their retail and calculated prices. Ultimately, I came to the same conclusion that the Times did: women may want to start shopping in the men's department.
Valentino Rockstud Backpack - Women's
$2,945 via Bergdorf Goodman
$1.97 per cubic inch
Valentino Rockstud Backpack - Men's
$2,700 via Saks
$1.75 per cubic inch
Saint Laurent Classic 6 Duffel - Women's
$1,990 via Net-a-Porter
$2.96 per cubic inch
Saint Laurent Classic 24 Duffel - Men's
$2,595 via MATCHESFASHION.COM
$1.54 per cubic inch